At 4:51 am, on April 27 in the North Bronx, Paula Clarke and her two daughters were awoken by the sounds of explosions and shuffling feet. “I just thought that [it was] terrorism, nothing else,” she said, thinking back to the night.
More than a dozen law-enforcement officers surrounded their home, detonating flash-bang grenades, before breaking down the front door—assault rifles drawn. A helicopter hovered overhead. The officers forced the disoriented family to crawl down their hallway toward them on hands and knees. The events were captured by Paula’s private security cameras. The footage is published here for the first time.
“They kept saying, ‘Where is Michael?’ and ‘Where is the gun?’” said Paula. Her son’s name is not Michael. “If they did [their homework], they would know that he was on parole and that he lives with his father.” After searching the home and finding no young man and no firearm, three authorities stayed with the women while the rest left to detain her 21-year-old son (she asked that he not be named). At the time, Paula did not know that her private terror was part of a massive raid sweeping her Williamsbridge neighborhood.
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That night, nearly 700 agents descended on Williamsbridge, a predominantly African-American neighborhood, to execute what would be the largest gang raid in modern New York City history. Seventy-eight people were arrested and 120 indicted, all on conspiracy charges. The men arrested—24 years old on average—are being held collectively responsible for eight murders, and a handful of firearms and narcotics charges dating back to 2007.
Unlike the city’s previous record-holding raid, from 2014, this predawn operation was conducted in close collaboration with federal authorities. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, DEA, ATF, the US attorney general’s office, and a US marshal were all involved. “These gangs are the epitome of organized crime today,” said Angel Melendez of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in a celebratory press conference following the raid.
A few blocks southwest of Paula’s home is the Eastchester Gardens public-housing project, the epicenter of the April 27 raid. Residents there are baffled by an official narrative that paints the young men as highly organized gangsters terrorizing the community. “They had no guns, they had no money, they had no nothing,” says Tonya Washington, mother of two young men who were taken. “They picked up a bunch of young struggling bums…. if you’re still living with your parents, you’re young and struggling.”
And like Clarke, Eastchester residents were traumatized by the militaristic tactics. “My son was standing there, making himself something to eat at 5:20 in the morning,” said longtime Eastchester resident Diane Jones. “When they banged on the door my daughter got up, and my son said, ‘Open the door, let them in, I have nothing to hide.’ And they came charging in like they were crazy. And my grandkids were terrified—I have three grandchildren.” Her son, interviewed in the film, has been behind bars ever since.
Two weeks after the raid, the NYPD and future police commissioner James O’Neill promised 20 more before July 4. Though cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have been rocked by gang raids since the 1980s, New York City has generally steered away from gang-oriented policing and mass indictments. But that is changing, judging from O’Neill’s comments, and his promotion. “We wanted to set the tone through these takedowns just before the summer, when violence traditionally spikes,” said O’Neill. “This is something that we do and we do very well.”
It’s an aggressive stance, given that violent crime is at an all-time low in New York City. Furthermore, data obtained by CUNY law professor Babe Howell show that, according to the city’s own statistics, between 2000 and 2013 gang-motivated and -related crime accounted for less than 1 and 2 percent of crime in the city, respectively, while 15–20 percent of homicides were “gang-related” in 2007–12.
Despite these low numbers, the NYPD launched Operation Crew Cut 2012—a pivot toward policing gangs that quadrupled the city’s gang division. The constitutionality of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy was under fire by a class-action lawsuit brought by the Center of Constitutional Rights since 2008. In 2013, it would be struck down for its racial bias and violation of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment protections. “As it became clear that the NYPD was losing the battle to defend stop-and-frisk in the courtroom, the media, and the political arena,” Howell argues in the University of Denver Law Review, “the NYPD issued dire warnings about the dangers of gangs.”
For New York, the focus on gangs has accompanied a 2014 initiative by Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase policing of public-housing projects by “implement[ing] a 21st-century approach to crime reduction.” The initiative has spent over $64.6 million on CCTV cameras and singled out 15 projects as high-crime zones. I cross-referenced the list of targeted housing projects with news coverage of raids, and since 2014 at least ten of those projects have experienced gang raids.
Takedowns have since swept the city, though it is hard to know how many exactly there have been. Concerned citizens associated with cop watching have tried to track raids going back to 2014, cataloguing about 20 from local media reports, though there are surely more. Their list omits summer 2016 raids in Crown Heights and Bedford Park in the Bronx, for example.
The NYPD and the Feds are using the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to bring down the alleged gang members swept up in the raids. Under RICO—invented to capture mafia kingpins who order but do not commit crime—individuals can be found guilty by association. Within Operation Crew Cut, Howell argues, “you [the police] get on Facebook, you pay attention to everything they say, and then you hold them responsible for the worst thing anyone in their circle has done.”
“They hit people with conspiracy, why?” says Marcus Wray, 28, longtime resident of Eastchester Gardens. “Because when you hit someone with conspiracy you can get every. Person. Around. The person sitting on the bench. Because I know that person, I might get indicted with him.”
During the lead-up to the April 27 raid, the NYPD and the Feds surveilled suspected members of two gangs over the course of a year, obtaining over 100 warrants for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. CCTV cameras are also used in “gang” investigations in the city. Activists say that in one meeting shortly after the raid City Councilman Andy King told them that one of the ways that authorities determined who was in a gang was by the type of baseball cap the man was wearing.
Though it may make sense to give prosecutors broad powers in order to bust mafias that corrupt legitimate organizations—like labor unions—the use of those means to nab petty criminals and residents of public housing, where associations and affiliations are easily blurred and mistaken, is quite another story. With residents facing decades behind bars, the application of RICO has families up in arms.
In one example, some of the indicted are being accused of conspiring to murder a 92-year-old woman who was killed by a stray bullet, even though someone in the “gang” already pleaded guilty in state court and is doing time for the murder. Not only are those in the “gang” being held responsible, the murderer is now being retried for the murder under the federal conspiracy charges. The dual sovereignty doctrine holds that double jeopardy isn’t violated because both state and federal governments have the right to prosecute crimes committed in their respective jurisdictions—even if one or the other has already convicted you. In addition, some defendants are being tied to the alleged gang by crimes they have already served time for, according to mothers who have read the sealed discovery materials and spoken with some of the indicted. This, too, is standard practice in RICO indictments, says Howell. Double jeopardy isn’t violated because the charges differ—this time you are being charged with conspiring to commit the crime. And all of your “associates” are also held responsible.
The broadening of RICO to apply to street gangs has drawn scorn, and accusations of severe racial bias. Local and federal authorities are quick to equate crime committed in minority neighborhoods to organized gang activity, while crime in white neighborhoods is addressed individually. One study of publicly available RICO gang indictments shows that 86 percent involve gangs primarily affiliated to blacks, Latinos, or Asians. In contrast, the KKK is not treated like a gang or indicted on federal conspiracy charges.
The results of this bias are seeping into New York life in ways that extend well beyond the courtroom. The raids are catalyzing the eviction of multiple families from Eastchester Gardens—in residents’ eyes, the raids are having an ethnic-cleansing effect. Hundreds of black would-be inheritors of public-housing apartments are being locked up and permanently excluded from housing. “They killed the whole neighborhood,” an anonymous former Eastchester Gardens resident said, “that’s how I look at it. They killed the future of a neighborhood.”
A void has been created.
“It’s devastating for all the parents,” says Clarke. “The community is devoid of all the youths, there are no more youths—the parks are empty. It’s like, ‘Where are all the young men?’ They are no longer here.”
The void is palpable for those like Clarke who have lived in these neighborhoods for decades. Newcomers though, might never notice.
Watch the video.